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A variety of physical-motor, social-emotional, and cognitive issues affect children with special needs. Special children may be receiving behavior intervention as well as care from a team of physicians and therapists. Their day is often busy; vast amounts of time, energy and money are spent between school, medical appointments, and therapy sessions. Time away from hospitals, doctors, and therapists is a welcome and much needed respite. A yoga class can act not only as a reprieve and but can also be a profound therapeutic tool.
Whereas traditional therapies address specific issues, Yoga addresses the whole child. Moreover, the benefits of yoga extend far beyond muscle conditioning and physical fitness. Of course, the physical benefits of yoga are note worthy. Yoga develops body awareness, increases overall flexibility, coordination and strength, and elongates and strengthens the spinal musculature, improving posture, through the practice of yoga asanas or postures. Children with joint stiffness, muscle rigidity, and hypotonia benefit.
A yoga class for a child with special needs may include adaptation of yoga asana-s; postures may be practiced with props or a yoga teacher may manually guide a child through movements if she does not possess sufficient balance, coordination, and strength to imitate the postures herself.
Breath work is a vital component in a yoga class for special children and the benefits numerous. The coordination of age and developmentally appropriate breathing techniques and asana-s not only improves respiratory function, it also improves focus and concentration. The use of sound, songs, and chants serve to regulate the breath and exercise the many muscles involved in speech and articulation. In addition, breath and sound work can easily be adapted to a child’s needs whether she is feeling anxious, excited, lethargic or fatigued.
Speech Pathologist Nicole Archambault, MS, CCC-SLP, CID, finds that her clients who practice yoga thrive. “Your posture is your support for breathing. Yoga improves posture and increases lung capacity, giving you more air to speak on, giving you your voice.” In addition Ms. Archambault has found that her clients who practice soothing breathing techniques “gain a sense of calm and emotional security. Children are better able to cope with emotions that might otherwise impede the ability of their mind to work to its most optimal ability.”
Many children with special needs have difficulty relating to others. Therapy in often one-on-one, so children miss out on the opportunity to engage and socialize with their peers. A group yoga class allows children to interact, communicate, and relate to each other: children get to share, play, and work together. In addition children learn how to listen, follow instructions, manage frustration and anger, and resolve conflict peacefully.
Mary Hallway, OTR/L, certified AVI instructor and co-owner of The Children’s Therapy Center in Garden Grove says, “Peer interaction is important and a group yoga class facilitates social skills. Special children get to participate with typically developing children their same age.”
Cindi Cnop agrees, “Working together in partner poses offers them a venue to develop personal space issues without the threat of ridicule. Yoga also encourages children to be supportive of each other, whether they can “do” the pose or not.” Ms. Cnop introduced her 11-year-old son, Enzo to guided visual meditation as a toddler. Enzo has sensory integration dysfunction.
Private instruction is recommended for children with special needs to address specific issues that cannot be addressed in a group class. A personalized practice can be created based on a child’s present condition: strength, flexibility, coordination, and, health concerns, her readiness to learn, willingness to cooperate, and overall span of attention.
In finding a class suitable for your child, inquire of the teacher’s credentials. Be sure the teacher has experience teaching children yoga as well as some training in the area of special needs. Be sure the student-teacher ratio is appropriate; if your child needs an aide in class ask if that need may be accommodated. Ask about funding options. In addition, make the teacher aware of your child’s diagnosis.